By Dave Boyle
Local media? Yesterday’s news, right?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the decline of the local press is something inexorable. The numbers say something big going on: in the daily and weekly newspapers making up the Northcliffe side of the Daily Mail and General Trust’s publications, there was a 48% fall in the number of people employed by the business between 2008-12, from 4,200 to 2,200, with the number of titles cut from 115 to 85 during the same period. The figures aren’t much different elsewhere.
The blame is generally aimed at the internet, and works to suggest that attempts to save – much less build – a more accountable press are a form of Canute-like futility, like trying to save the production of illuminated manuscripts after the invention of movable type.
But that’s a deeply misleading narrative, which serves both to inhibit the desire to do something – or anything – and to obscure a much bigger factor.
The fact that newspapers are closing, merging, and shedding staff suggests that the current owners think they’re unviable – but that’s not the same thing as being objectively unviable. There’s a feeling in the local media scene that the worst place to be is in the middle. Small is beautiful, and being large has scale. In the rush to be large, newspaper ownership groups of some size had little interest in downsizing (who ever got a bonus for reducing market penetration?) and went on buying sprees.
Many of these publishers have targets to achieve a 20% margin for their ownership groups. They have to service the bank loans incurred in the process of becoming so huge, and provide dividends for their many hungry shareholders. As long as that’s their goal, they are unviable. That’s why they’ll sell off a newspaper’s office in town to realise its asset value, or shed its staff to cut their cost base.
But take the West Highland Free Press, Britain’s first employee-owned local paper, based in Skye. The paper was formed in 1972 with an explicit mission to reflect the reality of Highland life, including the sharp inequalities of wealth and access to services that resulted from one of the most inequitable structures of land ownership, and thus power, in the country.
It’s always had a social mission to advance the cause of its readers, and when the founders looked to sell in in 2009, they were keen to ensure that their successors as owners shared that vision. That led them straight to the papers’ loyal employees, who worked hard to raise the capital themselves. Soon, with loans from the Baxi Partnership and Co-operative and Community Finance, the 13 employees became owners.
The paper generates a surplus of 2%; deeply unviable for a major newspaper group, but perfectly healthy to a group of owners who cover their borrowings and pay decent terms and conditions to their staff while producing a quality publication that reflects and serves local needs. The West Highland Free Press don’t want to be ‘big’ in terms of producing papers for anyone else; they just want to have more readers in their patch. Small is beautiful, and organic growth is gorgeous.
25% of local media in the UK is independently owned, often by people with a resolute connectedness to the communities their papers serve, and these places show more tittles bucking the trend. They’ve been seen as statistical noise against the trend of relentless job-shedding, circulation drops and revenue losses, but actually they are the signal.
The challenge for these titles is: where next? Who will own them after the current generation moves on? When they go on the market, the big groups might take an interest. But owners looking to move them on to people who share the values which drive them could do much worse than look to employee buyouts (especially if rumoured tax breaks to drive greater employee ownership materialise).
Other options include community ownership by readers. That’s the approach taken by Ethical Consumer magazine, which raised £200,000 from its readers and pays a handsome 4% interest rate to them. Those reader-owners provide a subsidy to the paper based on its values – they’d miss it if it didn’t exist, because by existing, it contributes to creating a world they want to see.
The same motivations can be leveraged by local publications and in so doing provide an answer to the pressing internet-related question facing news: how do you make readers pay more (to cover declining ad revenues as the internet proves a better place to sell things) at a time when people increasingly see free as a reasonable price?
The answer is to market values, not consumption. Sell the paper as an institution, not as a product. Invite me to buy a paper today, and I think about the impact of me buying or not buying for the cover price. Invite me to invest in a paper because if I don’t, it won’t exist, is a different proposition, which opens up the ethical investment route that the burgeoning community shares schemes are tapping into to fund football clubs, pubs, shops, piers and wind farms.
Not only would the community ownership approach help the balance sheet, it would provide a mechanism to provide real accountability to readers in a way that simple consumer choice cannot. You don’t need a Royal Charter or state regulator to hold a paper to account when you can turn up at the AGM and vote for the board.
To help move the debate forward, Co-operatives UK are partnering with the Carnegie UK Trust to organise a series of meetings around the UK to showcase alternative, community-owned media. The aim isn’t to have a talking shop though, and there’s follow-up support on offer for groups enthused by the approach to apply for, as well as a £2000 innovation prize.
Attendance is free, but spaces are limited. You can find out more and book here.
The first meeting in the Make Your Local News Work series takes place in London on Monday June 3rd, at the NUJ at Headland House, on Grays Inn Road.
Dave Boyle is the author of Good News: A Co-operative Solution to the Media Crisis.